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Fingerprint sensors: Do you care? Do you want them on Android? [Open thread]

One of the main features of the new iPhone 5S is the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. But is it a user experience breakthrough or a solution in search of a problem?
September 10, 2013
apple touch id fingerprint scanner

Apple is really good at selling stuff. Its marketing acumen is second to none, and that is highly visible in its masterfully choreographed events and promotional videos. That’s why I won’t judge anyone for watching Sir Jony Ive talk about Touch ID and thinking that fingerprint recognition is the greatest technology to ever grace a smartphone.

Alas, real life has the nasty habit of getting in the way of marketing claims, so it remains to be seen if Touch ID is everything that Apple sells it to be. For now, until we see the first hands-on reviews of the feature, let’s see what Touch ID is and how it works.

How Touch ID works

Touch ID is the fingerprint scanner built into the home button of the iPhone 5S. Apple touted a series of tech specs for the sensor, though I am not quite sure what’s the utility of knowing that the sensor is 170 microns thick or that it has a 500ppi resolution. The device “scans sub-epidermal skin layers” and can recognize a fingerprint regardless of the orientation. On top of the redesigned button, there’s a sapphire window, a material known for its scratch resistance. The metal ring around it is called a “detection ring”, though its actual utility isn’t clear to me.

Touch ID unlocks the device, and also works with iTunes and the App Store, replacing the password. Users can set several fingerprints, and I presume that should also allow device sharing, though Apple wasn’t clear about multi-user capabilities.

The pitfalls

Making fingerprint sensors work well is hard – just ask any of the companies that tried to incorporate the tech in their consumer devices over the years. Motorola and HP are perhaps the best known examples, and recently Samsung and LG have been rumored to consider adding fingerprint sensors to their flagships, only to give up on their plans when faced with technical challenges. HTC may use it on the upcoming One Max.

The 2011 Motorola Atrix featured a fingerprint sensor on its back.

What are the problems that Apple or any other company must solve to take fingerprint sensors to the mainstream?

  • It has to be simple to use
  • It has to be faster than typing a PIN or password
  • It has to be secure, both against physical tempering and software attacks

We’ll see soon enough if Apple solved these three big problems, in which case I will be the first to sing the praises of Touch ID. But if the tech doesn’t substantially make the users’ life better, it’s just “rampant technology” as Jony Ive put it.

Personally, I actually hope that Apple got it right this time, because that will spur everyone in the industry to find ways to make device authentication less of a hassle.

What’s your take?

How do you feel about fingerprint scanning and biometric identification in general? Have you ever found yourself wishing for a way to authenticate into your device without using a password or PIN? What’s your experience with fingerprint sensors?

Should Android manufacturers work on including biometric scanners in devices?

Sound off in the comments and answer our polls.

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